Monday, December 12, 2011

Punching Above Their Weight

Yes, I know, sports metaphors are inherently suspect, since they’re culturally coded as ‘male’ and therefore patriarchal and they subtly resinscribe the very blah blah blah.

But sometimes they’re really useful.

In boxing, “punching above his weight” refers to a boxer whose strength is greater than you would expect for someone in his weight class. Since size and power are roughly related, a middleweight who hits with the power of a heavyweight is said to punch above his weight. It’s a compliment; in essence, it’s saying that you overachieve relative to your resources.

Kevin Carey’s recent piece on picking high-performing community colleges reminded me of this old truism. The best performing community colleges aren’t necessarily those with the highest graduation or transfer rates; they’re those that consistently punch above their weight.

In this case, I’d take “weight” to refer to a combination of student characteristics and budget. Given a student population of x demographic profile -- age, race, income, even gender -- and a budget of z dollars per student, in general we should expect your grad/transfer rate to be y. If you did notably better than y, you punched above your weight, and you must be doing something right. If you did notably worse than y, it’s time to ask some difficult questions.

In that formula, “y” will differ from college to college. For example, I’m not shocked to discover that community colleges in South Dakota have some of the highest graduation rates in the country. Given the paucity of four-year options out there, I’d expect that many of the higher-achieving high school grads start out at the local community college, since it’s often the only game in town. In the more densely populated Northeast, by comparison, four-year colleges are everywhere, so community colleges tend to draw more uniformly from the lower ranks of the high schools. That fact, all by itself, changes the “y.”

Sports fans have been doing this kind of math for years. In baseball, for example, it’s easy enough to add up a team’s aggregate statistics and develop an “expected wins” total. A team that’s well above its expected wins total is either clever or lucky; a team well below is either snakebit or inept. By that measure, it’s entirely possible to say that the manager of a third-place team did a far better job than the manager of the second-place team. If the third place team didn’t have much to work with, and the second place team underachieved relative to its gargantuan payroll, then just looking at wins and losses won’t tell the story.

I’d like to find the colleges that are consistently doing better than their expected wins, and find out how they’re doing it.

I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this to catch on, even though it seems like a no-brainer. The winners in the current system have no incentive at all to upend the rules, especially when they probably wouldn’t fare terribly well. (Put differently: let me swap the student body at my college with the student body at Swarthmore, and let’s see what happens to graduation rates at each.) But if we’re serious about improving the performance of the masses, we’re not going to achieve that by competing to see who does the best job of keeping the masses out. Given that nearly half of the undergrads in America are at community colleges, coming up with measures that are contextually relevant seems like an obvious good. If you have x percent of students in poverty, and y percent who don’t speak English, and z percent over the age of 25, and you do a far better than predicted job for those students, then you’ve really achieved something. I’d like to find out which colleges fit that profile, and what they’re doing that I can steal.

I suppose one could object that this amounts to a kind of profiling, but I’d argue that it’s much more realistic and useful than pointing out to someone in a low-income part of the northeast that racially homogeneous states without four-year colleges achieve higher grad rates. The point is not to remake every college into a racially homogeneous cluster of high achievers; too many would be left behind. Telling me I could improve the college’s numbers by changing its demographics doesn’t help me at all; telling me who does better with the same demographics at least gives me a place to start.